Go/no-go decision in anaesthesia: wide variation in risk tolerance amongst anaesthetists

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The variability in risk tolerance in medicine is not well understood. Parallels are often drawn between aviation and anaesthesia. The aviation industry is perceived as culturally risk averse, and part of preflight checks involves a decision on whether the flight can operate. This is sometimes termed a go/no-go decision. This questionnaire study was undertaken to explore the equivalent go/no-go decision in anaesthesia. We presented anaesthetists with a range of situations in which additional risk might be expected and asked them to decide whether they would proceed with the case.


An electronic questionnaire was distributed to anaesthetic colleagues of all grades in one National Health Service Trust. Eleven scenarios, all drawn from critical incident data, were presented. Participants were invited to consider whether they would proceed, how they would modify their anaesthetic technique, and to predict whether a colleague with similar experience would make the same decision. Textual responses were analysed qualitatively.


The scenario response rate was 28%. Consultants were significantly more likely to proceed than trainees. In no scenario was there absolute agreement over whether to proceed, even in scenarios where national guidelines would suggest a case should be cancelled. Thematic analysis suggested a wide variability in what anaesthetists consider acceptable or professional behaviour.


It is clear that safety decisions cannot be made in isolation and that clinicians must consider operational requirements, such as throughput, when making a go/no-go decision. The level of variability in decision-making was surprising, particularly for scenarios that appeared to go against guidelines.

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